If you have been diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation (AFib), you may be looking for tips on how to stop AFib episodes naturally. Luckily, with certain dietary changes and a well-planned AFib diet plan, you may be able to reduce the number of AFib attacks you experience.
What is Atrial Fibrillation?
Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) is a heart rhythm disorder. In AFib, the atria (upper chambers of the heart) beat out of rhythm with the ventricles (lower chambers of the heart). This results in an irregular heartbeat called ‘fibrillation’.
In other words, the heart may be too fast, too slow, or skip beats altogether. As a result, the heart can’t pump blood as well as it should.
AFib is a very common disorder. It affects up to 6 million adults in the United States and approximately 34 million people worldwide. It is the most prevalent heart arrhythmia. Many people with AFib are at a higher risk of death and disability as it increases the risk of stroke and heart failure.
Symptoms of Afib
Afib symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling tired or weak
- Chest pain
- Drop in blood pressure
- Light-headedness or confusion
- Pounding or fluttering feeling in the chest (palpitations)
- Irregular pulse
Who is at risk?
There are many risk factors associated with AFib, including:
- Advancing age
- Electrolyte disturbances
- Heart disease
- Chronic kidney disease
- Sleep apnea
- Serious illness or infection
- Excessive use of alcohol or stimulants
Types of AFib
There are a few different underlying causes and triggers of AFib. These are the most common:
Vagus Nerve AFib
Vagal nerve atrial fibrillation is a heart rhythm disorder that commonly affects younger people with normally structured hearts. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your autonomic nervous system, and it has a lot of important roles. For instance, it’s heavily involved in digestion, blood pressure, heart rate, sweating, and even the ability to speak.
Vagus nerve AFib may occur when the vagus nerve is stimulated, such as when you’re swallowing or even falling asleep. However, this condition is largely under-recognized, but is still an important trigger to understand.
AFib and Acid Reflux
There is some indication that AFib could lead to symptoms of acid reflux for some people, though the mechanism is still uncertain. Some researchers think there could be an inflammatory and vagus stimulatory effect that could link the two conditions.
Furthermore, the close proximity of the esophagus and the left atrium may offer other clues. It’s possible that reducing acid reflux could help improve symptoms of AFib as well.
Insulin Resistance and AFib
Insulin resistance is a condition in which there’s an impaired ability of the body to respond to glucose, leaving blood sugar levels higher than normal. This happens before a diagnosis of diabetes in people of any body size.
Some research suggests that there’s a significant relationship between insulin resistance and the development of AFib, even when accounting for other potential factors like obesity. On the other hand, older research from the Framingham Heart Study has found that insulin resistance was not significantly associated with the development of AFib.
Whatever types of AFib symptoms you’re experiencing, it can be helpful to make some lifestyle changes – particularly to your diet and exercise habits – that support your management plan.
The AFib Diet: Treating this disease naturally
Medications used for AFib are often ineffective for treatment or prevention. This doesn’t mean you should stop taking your medications. It just means that lifestyle changes, like following an AFib diet along with other lifestyle changes, are important ways to prevent AFib attacks.
Foods to Avoid to Prevent AFib Attacks
A low-carbohydrate diet
Low-carbohydrate diets (i.e., keto, LCHF, paleo) have become very popular because they can produce short-term weight loss. However, restricting carbohydrates is not recommended, especially in regard to its impact on heart disease.
One large-scale study on low-carb diets and AFib included more than 13,000 participants and had a follow-up period of 22.4 years. The authors found that low-carb diets increased the risk of AFib, regardless of the kind of fat or protein participants ate in place of carbohydrates.
This may be because low-carb diets are generally lower in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, which also reduce vitamins and anti-inflammatory nutrients in the diet. There is a well-known association between inflammation and AFib, so not eating as many inflammation-fighting foods may increase the risk of AFib attacks.
Plus, one variation of a low-carb diet, also called a keto AFib diet, contains high amounts of fat and protein. This may trigger harmful stress in your cells, which is another risk factor for AFib.
Overall, low-carb diets come with a higher risk of developing nutrient deficiencies as well as changes in digestive health and may promote the development of AFib.
There have been many studies showing a strong relationship between alcohol and AFib. The Framingham Heart Study found that drinking at least 3 alcoholic beverages per day significantly increased AFib risk among men.
In addition to this, researchers found that with each additional standard drink, the risk of AFib increased by 8%. There doesn’t appear to be one single worst type of alcohol for AFib, so avoiding or limiting alcohol in general, may be a simple step towards AFib prevention.
Excess sodium (salt)
Research has found that eating a lot of sodium doesn’t just raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of having a heart attack and stroke, it also significantly increases the risk of AFib, regardless of age, weight, or blood pressure. To prevent AFib attacks, limit your intake to 1500mg per day and be mindful of hidden sources of sodium.
Fish oil became very popular a few decades ago as a way to help lower blood triglyceride levels, which can be very effective for some people. However, new risks of taking fish oil over the long term have recently come to light.
A 2021 meta-analysis and review of seven studies published in Circulation discusses the potential link between fish oil supplementation and the risk of developing AFib. Researchers concluded that patients who regularly took fish oil for an average of 5 years were more likely to develop AFib symptoms compared to patients who did not use it. This risk was even higher among patients taking over 1 gram of fish oil per day.
Another 2021 study published in JAMA, which included over 25,000 participants and a 5-year follow-up, concluded that fish oil supplementation provided no notable risk reduction for AFib. This was compared to individuals who were given either a placebo or a vitamin D supplement.
These two studies evaluated the effect of fish oil supplementation on the incidence of AFib, this research would not apply to eating fish as part of a heart-healthy diet. Increasing your intake of omega-3s from fish can lower your risk of AFib, which we will discuss below.
Caffeine is a known stimulant of the central nervous system. Caffeine also speeds up heart rate, which can cause an AFib attack for some people.
Overall, caffeine can speed up your heart rate, bringing it out of rhythm, and increasing your risk of AFib. If you have AFib, it’s best to avoid caffeinated beverages, such as coffee, tea, and energy drinks. Read ingredient labels to determine whether a drink contains caffeine if you’re unsure and choose decaffeinated beverages instead.
There’s mixed and mostly anecdotal evidence regarding onions and AFib, particularly whether they help or hurt AFib symptoms. Overall, it’s best to pay attention to whether onions – or any food – trigger AFib for you. Keeping a food journal can help identify dietary triggers so you can remove them accordingly.
Foods to Eat to Prevent AFib Attacks
So, what are some of the best foods to eat for AFib?
Magnesium is an electrolyte in your body. It helps maintain a steady heartbeat, normal blood pressure, and healthy muscle function. In the Framingham Heart Study, people who ate the least amount of magnesium were 50% more likely to develop AFib than people who moderate to high amounts.
It is difficult to obtain adequate levels of magnesium if you don’t plan it thoroughly into your AFib diet. Some foods rich in magnesium include pumpkin seeds, black beans, and quinoa. You can find more information about magnesium and foods that are good sources of this important electrolyte here.
Magnesium also influences the movements of potassium, sodium, and calcium across cell membranes. Studies show that potassium in muscles will not normalize unless magnesium is sufficient. Low levels of potassium have been shown to increase the risk of AFib as well.
Bananas and AFib? Yes! Bananas are a good food for AFib because of their high potassium content. One medium-sized banana contains around 400 mg of potassium, and the RDA for potassium for adults is 4700 mg.
Like magnesium, potassium is also an electrolyte and plays a key role in helping prevent AFib. More than 98% of Americans don’t get enough potassium in their diet. This is likely because the standard American diet is often lacking in fruits and vegetables, and most natural potassium comes from these plant-based foods.
In a study of more than 4,000 participants, low levels of potassium were associated with a significantly higher risk of AFib, suggesting that eating a potassium-rich diet may offer some protective benefits.
The best source of potassium is fruits and vegetables, including bananas. Potassium supplements should be avoided without medical supervision because they can cause AFib.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids (found mostly in fish) have long been associated with improved heart health. Omega-3s help prevent heart disease by improving blood pressure and fats in the blood, as well as decreasing the risk of sudden death.
When it comes to omega-3 and AFib, studies initially reported mixed results. However, recent studies suggest that omega-3s could be good for people with AFib, as they reduce inflammation and abnormal heart rhythms. These effects found that eating fish not only protected against future AFib attacks but improved symptoms overall.
A large study found that those who consumed a moderate amount of fish in their diets, about the equivalent of 1 ounce per day of fish, had the lowest risk of AFib.
Since fish oil supplements may not be optimal for those with AFib, it is best to eat omega-3 rich fish instead for the anti-inflammatory and heart-health benefits.
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
The PREDIMED trial found that AFib risk was lowered by 38% when participants added extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) to their diet.
EVOO has been found to decrease the inflammatory response found in those with AFib. Secondly, the antioxidants in EVOO help fight oxidative stress that may promote the development of AFib.
Exercise and AFib
Does exercise help AFib? Yes! In addition to the recommended diet changes above, it’s important to remember that an optimal diet goes hand in hand with exercising with AFib.
However, having AFib can make it difficult to exercise regularly due to the potential for a racing heart, which can lead to a drop in blood pressure and feelings of lightheadedness. And there is some evidence that long-term endurance exercise may worsen AFib, so running with AFib for long distances may not be the best option.
Still, exercising with Afib – when done in a non-strenuous manner – is beneficial for health, longevity, and maintaining an optimal weight. Be sure to stop if you feel lightheaded or otherwise need a break.
It’s important to find activities you enjoy doing rather than making exercise a chore you never look forward to doing. This could be a combination of things like strength training, interval workouts, jogging, yoga, and riding an exercise bike. Always speak to your doctor about the best type of exercise for you.
Weight loss and AFib
Regular exercise with AFib can help support healthy weight loss and weight maintenance, which is good for your heart.
A recent study reported that AFib patients were six times more likely to survive if they lost more than 10% of their body weight, compared to patients who lost less weight. The same study also showed that sustaining this weight loss resulted in significant maintenance of regular heart rhythm.
Making Lifestyle Changes with AFib: What should I do now?
A healthy diet is not only key to preventing and improving AFib risk, but it’s also necessary for a long and healthy life. I understand that changing your diet can be extremely challenging. Receiving the correct information and professional support are both critical for long-term success.
Furthermore, remember that preventing and managing your AFib requires a broader approach rather than focusing on just one thing. In other words, it’s the combination of recommended diet changes, caffeine and alcohol intake, exercise, sleep optimization, and stress management that will have the most benefit. Work with a cardiovascular specialist who can help you design a personalized approach to lifestyle changes that is both feasible and sustainable.
I am a Preventive Cardiology dietitian who specializes in heart diseases such as Afib. I have helped thousands of individuals with AFib eliminate their AFib attacks and feel better than ever before. I would love to help you by creating a personalized plan to create your best diet for AFib and help you prevent AFib attacks naturally through science-based recommendations.
Book a 15-minute complimentary call to see if we would be a good fit!
** This article is for informational purposes only and not a substitute for individualized medical advice or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health.
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